Thursday, May 29, 2008

Who Needs It?

Dedicated to Arye ben Chana.
(To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.)

I’ll never forget my first encounter with the Talmud.

I had been wandering around the Old City of Jerusalem with my backpack and someone who looked like a rabbi asked me if I needed help finding wherever I was going. I was looking for a place that some Jews I had met in Paris told me about. They called the Such-and-Such Yeshiva. There, they promised me, you can learn the Talmud in English.

“The Yeshiva? You’re here!”

Where I was standing didn’t look anything like a yeshiva, in fact I was in the middle of the street. “All these buildings around you are the yeshiva. By the way, it’s Friday afternoon, do you have plans for Shabbos?”

I didn’t.

The next thing I knew, I was in the back seat of an old white Citroën headed out to the Judean Hills as the sun descended towards the Mediterranean.

My host, I’ll call him Shlomo, it turns out was something of a renaissance man. A wiry, slender man with a long, thin graying beard, he was a combination Talmudic scholar, fix-it-man and guru on organic foods and herbs.

The community was not wealthy. They lived very simply, even by Israeli standards. But they seemed very happy on their bluff with a view of the Dead Sea. It turns out that I happened to arrive for a very special Shabbat, when “the rebbe” was visiting. This was not the famous Lubavitcher rebbe, he was the community rabbi, who was the most angelic person I’d ever met, with the sweetest, softest smile framed by a lush black beard. Friday night during the song “lecha dodi” song, he got everyone dancing outside. It was a divine, timeless moment.

Sunday morning, still radiating the afterglow of that Shabbat, I met Shlomo back at the yeshiva for my introduction to the Talmud.

He unlocked the door to an old building that had arched ceilings and almost no artificial light. Most of the light streamed in through high windows. The small room was lined with unsteady-looking bookshelves, jammed full of ancient Hebrew books of all sizes.

Shlomo pulled a massive volume from a bottom shelf, larger and heavier than any book I’d ever held, and put it in my hands. “Why don’t you put this over there,” he gestured to a reading table. He disappeared and reappeared with two dictionaries, one Hebrew-English and the other Aramaic-English.

For the next three hours Shlomo had me read (without vowels) and look up every word in the first half of the first page, going over it again and again until I could read it on my own. It was like weeding a dandelion field - every step was slow and deliberate. I felt like a baby trying to become a toddler. But Shlomo seemed to have infinite patience for my baby steps and I was determined to figure out this puzzle, which had to do with two people fighting over a object that they both claimed to have found first.

Finally, after this grueling effort at mastering that first section, Shlomo put his hand on the page and looked me in the eye. “Do you know why we learn Torah?”

“That’s a really good question,” I was thinking, “Um, shouldn’t we have discussed this before?” But my actual reply was, “Isn’t it supposed to teach us how to live?”

“Not necessarily. We could learn how to live in other ways. Many people around the world learn how to live without the Torah. We could learn how to live from the animals – from dogs how to be loyal, from beavers how to be industrious...” That image reminded me of King Arthur, who according to legend did exactly that.

The point was, he had a point, and I didn’t have a clue.

“So what’s the reason?”

“The Torah,” he intoned slowly, “Is to teach us how to be holy.”

“Oh....” My voice and thoughts trailed off.

I looked down at the gigantic page of ancient text in front of me. The paper was faded. The corners were worn as if they had been touched by a thousand hands. The air was cool, and in the shaft of sunlight streaming down from behind the bookcase, a fly buzzed.

I wasn’t sure what “holy” meant, or what it had to do with the property dispute that I had been sweating for three hours to decipher. But something told me it might have something to do with that Shabbat “experience”.

Shabbat Shalom

Travel/speaking schedule:
June 17 – Chicago - “A New Twist on the Old Game of Love” (downtown business lunch)
June 18 - Los Angeles – “How Frustrations are the Key to Successful Dating” (for singles)
June 24 – Los Angeles - “Jewish Secrets to a Spicy Marriage” (for married men)
June 25 – Los Angeles - “How to help our children get married without interfering (too much)” (for parents)

For details, send an email!

Friday, May 23, 2008

३ Questions

Three Questions for your table...

This week I was in New York teaching about, among other things, tzedaka.

You know, the idea of giving some of your own money or time or other resources to a needy cause?

I happened to mention the Talmudic idea that a person is given 10 percent more income every year than he or she “deserves”, in karma-terms.

As soon as I said that, I could see a guy named David get a little uncomfortable. But my next line made him become visibly agitated, as if I’d pushed an invisible button.

“...Judaism goes on to say that if a person chooses not to devote that 10 percent surplus to tzedaka, then it will eventually be taken away from him.”

Boy did he hate that.

First question – Why did David hate that?

Second question
: If someone is not a regular tzedaka-giver, what would it take for them become one? If not 10 percent of after-tax income, how about 2 percent?

(In the past I have suggested names of worthy causes, both in the US and Israel. One of the beautiful aspects of our tzedaka tradition is that the giver decides where to invest his tithe. Nonetheless, not all designees are equal.)

Third question: What is the best way to give tzedaka?

Maimonides identified eight levels of charity. If you’ve heard them before, see if you can name them before reading on...

1) The highest level, is to help a person become independent by lending to him or investing in his business, or sending him to school.
2) One who gives to the poor, but does not know to whom he gives, nor does the recipient know his benefactor.
3) One who knows to whom he gives, but the recipient does not know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to walk about in secret and put coins into the doors of the poor. It is worthy and truly good to do this if those who are responsible for collecting tzedaka are not trustworthy.
4) One who does not know to whom he gives, but the poor person does know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to pack coins into their scarves and hang them over their backs, and the poor would come and take the coins out so that they would not be ashamed.
5) One who gives to the poor person before being asked.
6) One who gives to the poor person after being asked.
7) One who gives to the poor person gladly and with a smile.
8) One who gives to the poor person unwillingly.

But even this lowest level is called “tzedaka” - righteousness.

One who gives at any level is therefore righteous.

By the way, since I know someone is going to ask, I’ll tell you the reason David told me, and then you can tell me if you agree or disagree with him.

He said, “I don’t like the idea of giving-because-I-feel-that-there’s-something-in-it-for-me. I want to give out of the sheer joy of helping someone. Giving is infectious. Once you start, you can’t stop.”

David, your attitude is infectious!

Shabbat Shalom

Travel/speaking schedule:

June 17 – Chicago - “A New Twist on the Old Game of Love”
June 19-20 - Los Angeles – “How to Find Your Soulmate and How to be Found”; “Amazing Marriage Primer” (women only)
June 24-25 – Los Angeles - “Amazing Marriage Primer” (men only); “How to Help Your Children Find Their Soulmates”
August 11-13 – CAJE conference, Vermont

For details, send an email!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Made in China

The other day I was driving my son home from – guess what – his baseball game, and turned on the radio. The newscaster was at that moment mentioning the number of people hurt or killed in some accident. Avrami, who rarely ever hears or reads the news asked in complete innocence, “Why would people want to listen to all that, about people dying or getting hurt?”

I realized that he was right. It wasn’t something we needed to listen to. I switched off the radio.

If you think about it, anyone who reads, watches or listens to the news is bombarded ninety percent of the time with unfortunate, even tragic information. That’s not uplifting.

The excuse is always, “Well, I have to know what’s going on in the world.”

This morning someone admitted to me, “I’m having a hard time feeling moved by this earthquake in China.”

It’s a problem of scale. You hear an impressive number, and it doesn’t get into your heart. You hear a story of a mother who personally guided the excavation equipment to their collapsed apartment building, got permission to knock down the front gate, and called into the rubble, “Don’t worry, Mommy’s here, Mommy’s here” only to find the child and his grandparents have perished – if that doesn’t make you weep you’ve got a hole in your soul.

Certain spectator events, such as natural disasters in the other hemisphere, play on our little boxes in our living rooms or dashboards like another piece of entertainment.

The real issue is why you media people out there choose to cover such stories at the expense of others?

After all, there are tragedies and disasters all the time, every single day, that we rarely hear about.

For instance, every single day, some 16,000 children under age 5 die from starvation and malnutrition. Try to wrap your mind around that (see also here and here and here). That was true on 9/11, that was true when the tsunami struck Asia, that was true when the cyclone hit Burma, that was true when the earthquake hit China and that is true today.

That’s about one little kid dropping dead every five seconds in the most painful way.

Every day, some 500 species of animals or plants become extinct. That’s about one gone every three minutes. (I’ll admit, this number is a guesstimate and the consequences for human life are not crystal-clear.)

Yet every day, more lives are saved through new medicines, new surgeries, new technologies, new environmental initiatives, new social intervention programs....

Every day we have new knowledge, more people connecting to each other, more acts of kindness...

Here’s some really good news – some friends here in Baltimore (who also study ancient Jewish wisdom with me every week), introduced me to the aerogarden – it’s a nifty affordable, almost carefree device to grow bug-free herbs indoors. We are now looking forward to fresh basil year round!

I’ve never met someone who didn’t want to leave the world better off than we found it. Anyone who has ever loved a child wants to. So here are today’s questions for your table:

Is life on earth is getting worse, or is the world in balance getting better?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Until recently, I had a hard time finding anything made of plastic or wood not made in China. Even our new aerogrow (ordered today) is made in China. Then, for Passover, we bought Avrami a diablo, also known as a “Chinese Yoyo” (see the blog for a photo). Its origin? “Made in Switzerland”. A vestige, or a new trend?

Travel/speaking schedule:
May 19 – Baltimore - “Does a Spiritual Person Wear a Watch?”
May 20 – New York - “The Art of Amazement”
June 17 – Chicago - “A New Twist on the Old Game of Love”
June 18-19 - Los Angeles – TBA
June 24-25 – Los Angeles - TBA

For details, send an email!

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Friday, May 09, 2008


Dedicated this week to my Mom. We love you, Mom!
(To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.)

Last year, I related a dramatic episode in my own Jewish journey called “Once Upon a Time in Paris”. I have been asked for more episodes.

Obviously, I eventually made it to Israel. Getting there, however, was not a straight path. In-between Paris and Jerusalem, the road took me to:

- a Bosnian refugee camp during the war there, to work with children and war-widows
- central Africa, including Rwanda and Zaire before the wars there, to see the fabulous animals
- Eastern Europe, looking for vestiges of pre-Holocaust Jewish communities

...and crazy London. London is great for an American traveler. All the excitement of a foreign country without the language barrier.

London is also the world’s greatest travel hub. With two huge airports, you can find rock-bottom tickets to almost anywhere. “New York return ticket, €99!”

I had written ahead to contacts in both Israel and India to know if it was good timing to show up. Letters from both awaited me at the Piccadilly Am Ex office.
From both Bombay and Jerusalem, the answer was, “Come on, we’ll take care of you!”

I scanned the travel ads. The flights to Israel and India were roughly the same. What should I do?

One thing I had learned in school, breaking all American stereotypes, was geography. I knew that Israel was en route to India. So why not do both?

Listen, I told myself, Judaism is a 3,000 year-old tradition. You’ve at the very least got to find out what it’s all about before you throw it out the window!.”

“Yes,” my self replied, “But I’ve been there before. I’ve seen the country. It’s not exactly high on our list of destinations.”

“Sure, you saw the country, but admit it, you didn’t learn diddley-squat about Judaism” (I was still heavily referencing Vonnegut in those days.)

“That’s true, but I don’t know any spiritual Jews. All the spiritual people I’ve met spent time in India.”

“So that’s it? You’re just going to throw it out without even knowing what it’s all about?”

“How much time do I have to give it?”

We (myself and I) agreed on one month. We figured, if a 3,000-year-old tradition can’t speak to us in a month, it never will.

So I bought a one-month return ticket to Tel Aviv, and wrote to my contact in India that I would be coming a bit later in the year.

When the plane landed in Israel, a funny thing happened. 6,800 miles from my birthplace, I felt that release of tension you feel when you come home after a long journey.

What was that all about?

So it goes?

Shabbat Shalom

(and Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there)

Travel/speaking schedule:

May 14 - Miami
May 19 – Baltimore
May 20 – New York
June 17 – Chicago
June 18-19 - Los Angeles
June 24-25 – Los Angeles

Friday, May 02, 2008


A short story for your table, and a question.

The story

We were fortunate to spend Passover in Israel this year. We thought that we’d allowed sufficient time to travel there and arrive before the holiday, leaving on Wednesday afternoon from Philly, transferring in Frankfurt with a comfortable four-hour layover, for a scheduled arrival Thursday afternoon.

The plane in Philly had such severe mechanical trouble, that after 90 minutes at the gate, they decided to move us (and our luggage of course) to another plane.

After the transfer, we taxied out only three hours behind schedule. But then we hit a traffic jam of airplanes that looked like the Baltimore Beltway during a thunderstorm. I.e., the entire runway looked like a giant parking lot. We took off an hour later and so were cutting it a little close, to say the least, for our connection. This became especially worrisome because I personally knew that there were no empty seats available from Frankfurt to Tel Aviv, certainly not enough for the 25 of us on that plane headed to Israel.

We asked the crew to let their colleagues on the ground know of our predicament and help us make the connection. The pilot radioed ahead.

So when we deplaned there, some 25 minutes before the connection, we – all 25 of us – ran as fast as we could through that chaotic airport, going through three full security checkpoints (the full works – X-ray and body scan).

Try to imagine doing this with five young children and 7 carry-on items. We made it to the gate at 4:10 – the 4:15 flight was still on the ground and they were still loading baggage. But they had “closed” the flight.

We were all standing there together, seeing our plane and knowing there were empty seats on it.

They are so high-security there that the agents are beyond another glass door, impossible even to talk to them. I knocked, I called, I pleaded, and the agent finally came to the door to try to shoo us away. Here’s how the conversation went (try to read her part with a German accent):

- “I’m sorry, ve’ve closed the flight.”
“Well, could you please open it for us.”
- “No, I cannot do that, it’s closed, it’s already left.”
“We can see that it’s still there, it’s not even 4:15 yet. You’re still loading baggage! I’m traveling with 5 young childr-”
- “Sir, it is not Lufthansa’s fault that you arrived late. I guess it was your ‘cup of tea’.” This last line she said with a derisive grin, evidently pleased with her clever use of the English language. When I responded with dumbfounded silence, she added, “It is the other airline’s fault and you will have to speak with them.”
“I understand that it’s not your fault, but there are no more flights from Frankfurt and due to the holiday we will be stuck here until Tuesday.”
- “Sir, the flight is closed.”
“I understand that you are not at fault. But I’m asking you to be kind to us and these children...”
- “Sir, ve are not kind, ve are business. Now you will have to speak with your arrival airline.”

She shut the door and that was that.

Do you think we were very thankful to be re-routed via Paris on an Air-France flight that got us into Tel Aviv at midnight and to our destination in northern Israel by 5:30 am?

Do you think we were grateful that our luggage arrived ten minutes before candlelighting Friday afternoon?

Here’s your question:

Remember the famous declaration of Hillel, “What you hate, don’t do to your neighbor, the rest is commentary, now go and study”? Should this apply to “business”, or is it limited to one’s personal life?

You know, the people who are building and defending the Land of Israel are doing a marvelous job. Not perfect, but my hat is repeatedly off to them. It was tremendously uplifting to be there.

Shabbat Shalom

Travel/speaking schedule:

May 14 - Miami
May 19 – Baltimore
May 20 – New York
June 17 – Chicago
June 18-19 - Los Angeles
June 24-25 – Los Angeles

For details, send an email!